With Revolver and Sgt. Peppers etc., the Beatles created possibilities for the standard rock band set-up of guitar, bass, and drums. The colors and timbres of sitar, orchestral instruments, tape loops ( backwards guitar), and Mellotron, were now layered through as the new psychedelic sound. Shortly thereafter, every garage band (including my own) had to recruit (beg) the lonely neighborhood girl in the sweater to come and play weird chords on her electric violin. This new sonic revolution was reflected in the arena of rock music as the alternative to mainstream top 40 pop/r&b tunes about surfboards, teenage summer love and rejection, and the latest cool car. Teenage culture had matured into adult mind-bending experience. New bands were experimenting with the mechanics of new chord progressions, and turned out alternative modes of expressionistic music. They were introspective, thought-provoking, poetic, and somehow the audience knew that they should stop dancing and listen. Rock music was now a listening experience. New bands were carving inroads and creating their own dedicated cult following. They were musically adventurous, and their stubbornly unique qualities created contrasting polemics with other blues based bands. And what set them apart were their independence, drive (energy), and choices of instrumentation. The following notes are examples of some of these alternative bands:
(1) Love Sensitive and introspective, this hippest multi-racial band from Laurel Canyon, L.A., played smoldering music that is difficult to pin down as “rock.” Arthur Lee arranged and integrated horns, winds, strings, and even harpsichord as colors (Lee had a great musical ear). Love’s point of departure was folk ala the Byrds, but were never a folk band. They became so advanced by the time their third LP was released (Forever Changes), that they defied category. They were autonomous and critically praised. Love’s central sound was Lee’s singing, John Echols’ stunning leads, and Brian McLean’s finger-style acoustic guitar weaving through a tightly driven rock band. Their poetic lyrics played on the double meanings of words and witty flips of phrases about every day experience. Because they never went on tour, they relentlessly played the strip, and became a guarded cult band by the beautiful college beach crowd. Love was L.A.’s best local live band with the most obscure hits. They were often compared to another, more younger L.A. band at the time: the Doors. Both bands were led by tortured geniuses (Morrison/Doors and Lee/Love). The Doors went to New York to become famous and Love was invited to play Monterey Pop and turned it down. Love was less academic, more intuitive with instrumentation and further away from the blues format than the Doors. The Doors explored the boundaries of the blues and of mind. In the end, both bands self-destructed (prison and death) and suffered tragic consequences in front of a faithful audience that lasts today.
(2) It’s A Beautiful Day Fronted by electic violinist David Laflamme and his wife, Linda, playing keyboards, this band epitomized an alternative elegance to the now rakish psychedelic San Francisco scene. Yet they had two sides: a folksy fiddle style versus an ebullient romanticism. Their songs swoon and sway and build to a climax, which is against almost any radio format. They play on a variety of styles with an emotion that the audience is either satisfied or bewildered, but each song musically states a clear and uncompromising position. Their jazzy drummer, Val Fuentes, is the center of the band. He is solid on the high hat, and his nimble independent feet and hands push the band when they play live. This is less evident on record due to the strange mixing of voices. When the San Francisco heads turned away to the harder rocking Santana, It’s A Beautiful Day stood stubbornly to its world view of romantic love, peace and pleasure.
(3) Roxy Music Out of the gates of a London Art School, this band dressed like freaky spaced greasers. Roxy Music perverted the aura of 50s do-wop (even with a sax player!), and set the scene to play on the litany of swollen and stale uncarbonated romantic love. On each album cover there is a half-naked siren or femme fatale, which is emblematic of Brian Ferry’s quivering vocals and the band’s sonic sophistication that called the listener back to its seduction. Roxy Music is astonishing: the guitar riffs and treatments of Phil Manzanera, the loud inventive keyboard playing of Brian Eno, the funky drop dead bass and tight drumming, electic violin, sax, oboe, etc. and on and on. Alternatively pushing on all sides, this was a dangerously sleek band for 1972. At that time who was ready for Roxy Music’s jaded, world-weariness and artsy decadence. Later, Brian Ferry returned to the dance, seducing 80s audiences with the swan song of love’s intrigue.
(4) Beck “That was a good drum break.” On video or live, Beck appears bored, shallow-eyed, and lost looking. His movements seem slower than the tempo of the music, giving Beck a detached and goofy appearance. He has the inside joke which you get through his mixed bag of tricks. Beck has a terrific musical ear and he is idiosyncratic enough to possibly create material for an album using just shop tools and a microphone. He uses so many contrasting textures: dissonant glassy electronics against a velvety smooth saxophone riff etc,. His ironic low down voice on the low down is relentlessly and sonically altered, which pushes the pastiche effect of musical collage into a cinematic presence. It took far too long for a smart and humorous figure such as Beck to appear on the scene.
With the glib and philistine marketing of bands such as Sum41, My Chemical Romance, and Nickleback, all claiming to be alternative, it really undermines the bands that are inventive, poetic, and musically adventurous. Plastered wind-swept hair, studded bracelets, goofy razor wire tattoos, and black t-shirts, are now emblematic of alternative bands. Their music is secondary. They are the cliché in the machine that turns them out and rewards them with a contract based on a puny internet fan base. Since the mid-90s we have been stuck in a musical roundabout that is comparable to the era of do-wop and the machine of Motown before the Beatles. But today we have mud slides of mediocre anonymous (punk?) bands, the never-ending bullet-ridden Rap machine, and the feckless sticky stale riot grrrls ala Avril Lavigne. It’s the alternative to the alternative meaningless mess as to what this musical genre has become, and worst of all, popular. Yuck.